Thursday, October 6, 2022

A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine
Completed 10/1/2022, Reviewed 10/1/2022
4 stars

I’m begrudgingly admitting to liking this book. I was pretty meh about the first book in the Teixcalaan series, A Memory Called Empire, and I wasn’t looking forward to reading the sequel.  However, it won the 2022 Hugo Award and was nominated for a slew of others, including the 2021 Lambda Literary Award.  Since I’ve read all the Hugos, and since I’ve been reading all the Lammy nominees of late, I buckled down and read it.  Starting it was like pulling teeth.  It had all the pitfalls that I didn’t like from the first book, the wacky names, the character statements interrupted by long prose, and tons of politics.  It took me nearly a week to get through the first third of the book.  Then it was Saturday, and I read the last 300 pages.  And I got it, and I liked it.  So yeah, I’ll admit to agreeing with the Hugo voters on this one.

The plot is convoluted as it has multiple points of view bouncing around and it takes a while before the narrative narrows down to two main story lines that eventually converge.  The empire is on the verge of war with an unknown enemy.  It is slaughtering citizens and barbarians with no discrimination.  Three Seagrass takes it upon herself to invite Mahit to join her on a diplomatic mission to try to communicate with the enemy and prevent a long destructive war.  In the meantime, the clone of the old Emperor is now eleven-years-old and as precocious as ever.  He’s heir to the throne and his guardian is the current Emperor.  She calls him her little spy, becoming her ears in secret places.  But soon he has his own realizations about the enemy that could put a stop the genocide that seems inevitable.

Yeah, complicated.  And the setup in the first hundred fifty pages is so tedious.  I could not for the life of me get into what anybody was doing or saying.  It was a lot of posturing and playing politics.  After that, I finally got what all the setup was about and it started to make sense.  However, it still took about another fifty or so pages to remember who all the characters were.  The whole naming scheme kept me from remembering who was who.  There’s Three Seagrass and Eight Antidote, and Nineteen this and Nine that.  When the narration finally narrowed down to Eight Antidote, the heir apparent, and Mahit and Three Seagrass, I finally was able to follow what was going on.  Then the first contact plotline emerges and is really interesting.

I kind of remembered Mahit from the first book.  She was the main character.  But I read that book early last year and didn’t remember details.  Nor did I remember that she and Three Seagrass had a spark between them.  In this book, their relationship erupts into full intimacy, and I have to say, it was done really well.  Great character development and relationship building.  I did also like Eight Antidote.  As the heir apparent, he takes his job as the Emperor’s spy seriously, but also has his own sense of morality.  He develops a well-informed conscience and gets to act on it.

I’m glad I devoted a whole Saturday to finishing this book.  Reading only twenty pages a night for a week doesn’t lend itself to remembering a cast of characters with unmemorable names.  It also makes it hard to follow all the narratives that the book starts out with.  But reading in one sitting made it all come together for me.  I give this book four stars out of five.  Unfortunately, I don’t think a good book should have to be read in one sitting.  I like books that are a little less complicated.  That’s why I tend not to like space opera.  There are too many characters and situations to remember.  And if you only get to read twenty pages a night for a while, it makes the book that much less enjoyable.

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